Ocosingo War Diary

Voices from Chiapas

For Guadalupe Belmontes Stringel.

PROLOGUE. (I was born in Ocosingo’s first valley, when my village was still gateway to the jungle, and the jungle was still worthy of its name.  In that atmosphere of pain and wonder you could plumb the depths of nature and human nature.  In that smithy my soul was forged.  There, in the old family house, the war took us by surprise. I kept a hasty record of what I saw and heard during those first 12 fateful days.  The very valley that gave rise to my verse has also generated the snapshots which, in brushstrokes of stuttering prose, I transcribe below.)



7:30  A plane sounds overhead.


07:45 Another plane, or the same one on its way back.

I see soldiers in the school buildings and town hall, at the pharmacy and the hotels.

Carmelino’s nervous: they’ve warned him that “there’re 500 Indians on the outskirts of town.”

That they’re holing up at small ranches beyond the Jataté.

“Working so hard all your life just so these sons of bitches can come steal what didn’t cost them a thing,” says, at the store, a young man whom I don’t know.

It’s been 32 years since I left Ocosingo, first for San Cristóbal and then for the monstrous city. It’s changed so much: of the small populated area of 3,000 inhabitants, of cobble-stone streets, orchards and coffee plantations, and streets criss-crossed by horses skillfully ridden by able cowboys, not even the memory remains. There was no highway and all dealings with the outside world used to be done via small planes. Progress came and came at a cost. Uglified the architecture, chopped down the orchards, paved the streets over and filled them with noise and filth. I’m writing this because there’re so many people I no longer recognize . . . .

The violent rumble of the planes has kept us all whispering, tip-toeing around, indoors.

The furious purr stitches clouds together with an invisible thread.

At this hour, in Mexico City, my children must be in class, listening to university harangues in favor of the armed rebels.


08:57  We finished a barricade with cement blocks, to protect a window of my parents’ room.

Génner, Edgar, uncle Rodrigo, Pillita and I did it, transporting blocks barehanded or with uncle Mario’s dolly.

We managed to move half a ton.

It was cloudy at first light.

It drizzled before dawn, amidst a hair-raising wind.

The birds of paradise, which we planted a year ago, arise in all their radiant splendor.

I gaze at the Surinam cherries and the tulips, the roses and the bougainvillea, brilliantined by the drizzle.

I think about my children again: according to our plans, today we were supposed to be on our way back.

I want to be in Mexico City, but if I were there I’d want to be here.

People go around with their white flags beneath the drizzle.

Edgar sees patients.

“The Indians are holing up on the ranches out past Guadalupe, to look for arms, small rifles and pistols. But also to steal beans, corn, sugar, salt. They’re going around saying that now they’re definitely gonna come kill everyone in town.”

This I hear in the doctor’s office, in whose doorway I’ve come to sit and write, while I look out at the street.


09:55 A employee from town hall comes looking for Adán Sánchez, my neighbor and godson’s father, who lives across the way and is the municipality’s leading town councilor.

The boy says the neighboring communities are peaceful: that there’s nothing going on in Rancho Mateo, nor in Campet, nor in Suschilá.

That’s there’s nothing to fear.


10:00 Alfonso Victoria tells the story, in the waiting room of the doctor’s office: “Nine shots entered my room. One was left like this, all twisted, a piece of lead. Thing is, I live near Bálthazar Ruiz, who’s got a really big place, with lots of trees. There were lots of Indians holed up there. . . . It had our asses like this: tight as a drum.  We were scared shitless.  It was rough. When the 15 helicopters passed by, all the guerrillas holed up there were shooting.”


10:15 Jesús, Celia’s son-in-law who lives up the street, stops by.

He went all the way to the roadblock and they told him the Red Cross is still helping those who want to leave.

They have two buses and people can also leave in their own vehicles.

He and his whole family are thinking of leaving: his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law, everybody.

“Thing is, we’re really worried about the children. They cry a lot. They’re scared. If you didn’t have kids, you’d go out and kill them or whatever, but with little ones . . . .”

Carmelino’s also thinking about leaving, “if he gets some gas.”

Adán tells about a lady whom they pierced through the chest with a bullet: “Titty swollen out to here . . . but she’s still alive, she didn’t die.”

He also gives us the heads up that Eleuterio’s son passed by, saying “don’t get too comfortable, because 500 men are coming ready to finish off the town.”

I ask my sister who’s the oft-mentioned Eleuterio: “An old man who lives up here. Just got out of jail. Has trucks and seems to be making trips to the jungle.”


11:07 There’ve been no impacts all morning.

Or have there?


11:21 I cut up some cartons and place them in the windows of my parents’ room.

This will allow for turning on the light without feeling anxiety by night.

We’re still without electricity, but the water’s running.


11:35 Carmelino’s leaving.

He refused to stop to do any more business.

“There’s only a little liquor left now,” he says.

“Brave as your father was and you so cowardly,” Elva Ruiz tells him.

“Yeah. It’s just that last night I was scared, plain and simple. You can’t even sleep. I’m real nervous all day long,” he responds.

“And Flor’s really nervous, too,” says Dora.

Carmelino’s sure the two tons of dynamite that were stolen from Pemex are going to be used to blow up the town.

“And my house can’t withstand not even two shells,” he adds.

Pilla and Dora found a store where they’re selling plantains.


11:49 I put flower pots on top of the barricade blocks.

The wind and drizzle grow stronger, and savage the cluster of palm trees that’s grown on the west patio.

But there’re lots of palm trees, royal and coyol, in nearby places.

At la Celia’s house, at doña Leonor’s house, at what was doña Leonides’ house.

There’re big avocado trees in ours and in the neighboring vegetable gardens.

All this adds to the sound of the wind in the foliage.

Music of the turbulent palms.

From San Cristóbal, at 7,283 feet above sea level, descends the mountain range towards the east.

Little by little, amidst hollows, hills and miniscule valleys.

Thick with conifers and checkered by cornfields and collectives, settlements and wilderness areas, the mountain range smoothes as it slides towards our warm valleys.

Hills, ocote pines, oaks, clouds and the Jataté itself, all come visit the valley.

The hills stop short, prudent, at La Ventana.

The audacious Jataté spills over in a torrent of foam: a violent explosion of whiteness that bursts into tempestuous cascades.

Soon it’s pacified, and its green transparency is confined to the three valleys.

It then becomes the Lacantún River and much later, now joined with the Usumacinta, will discharge the greatest volume of water that any Mexican river spews out into the Gulf.


12:40  – Why’s it raining so hard, grandma? – quizzes Edgar, the littlest grandchild.

– It’s the Cabañuelas, child.[i] Today is August. Yesterday the rains began, in July. Because of this lousy war, we haven’t even paid attention to the Cabañuelas.


12:41 A caterpillar: a prodigy of hair and antennae, passes, extremely slow, by the low terrace wall.

Its multiple little feet move it along with a quickness, like chills running up and down the spine of shuddering itself.

It seems almost feathered.

An undiluted horror.


12:45  Mist has sepulchered the town.

You can see the church but absolutely nothing beyond.

The soldiers, on the school roof, stand guard beneath the drizzle.


12:50  The hog-butcher lady brings us the lard we ordered yesterday.

Today they didn’t slaughter because “it’s scary to go out selling. On account of last night.”


13:00  Don Beto Ruiz recounts how “as the guerrillas were leaving, they came and killed two my little cows. Just for the hell of it. Since there was so much gunfire we couldn’t make use of them, none of us. They rotted there . . . just vulture pickings.”


13:07  Rich against poor, Indians against Ladinos, Catholics against Protestants, people from Ocosingo against people from Oxchuc.

And all possible combinations of those eight variables.

Plus the new variables within each category.

An example?

Here goes: Poor Indians against rich Indians.

Poor Ladinos against rich Ladinos.

Poor Oxchuc Indians against poor Ocosingo Ladinos.

Poor Protestant Indians against poor Catholic Indians.

Rich Protestants against rich Catholics.

Rich Catholics against poor Catholics.

Rich Samuelist Catholics against rich anti-Samuelist Catholics.

Rich pacifist Ladinos against poor Indians, politicized and aggressive.

Rich Ocosingo Ladinos, aggressive, Catholic, conservative, anti-Samuelist, against . . . .

Everyone at war with everyone, in this area of the world that burns quietly beneath the drizzle.


13:15  The street, without the store and its customers, looks lonelier.

My father says that “Carmelino left because his store’s called ‘El Cubanito’. So, they might ask him to support the cause . . . .”

We chuckle.


13:20  Domingo and Martín, father and son, Tzeltals, come to the house.

Bring two bunches of bananas.

These displays, which so move my wife, seem absolutely natural to me.

I’ve seen them throughout my life.

Displays of gratitude that speak of respect and reciprocity.

Clearly, in time of war the spotlight shines brighter on gestures like this.


14:02  It’s Saturday.

Finally, after so long, we heard a little marimba on the radio.

Laughter, like on the program La Tremenda Corte.[ii]

Alarming news: 400 guerrillas try to take over the San Cristóbal microwave station.

A bomb at University Plaza.

Another in Acapulco.

Alarm because of another explosive device at the Legislative Palace in Mexico City.


14:34  The drizzle hasn’t stopped all morning.


14:36  Lety calls, my cousin: saying Carmelita Villafuerte heard the news on the radio that yesterday’s caravan arrived safely in Tuxtla and San Cristóbal.

My sister and her family, my aunt and her family, my cousin Toño and his family, they arrived without incident.


19:32  Last night we were worried that the light from the windows could be seen.

In the morning I put cardboard between the glass and the curtains.

It was perfect: now we can light candles and kerosene lamps calmly.

Dora made some delicious bread that we had with recently ground coffee at the candle-lit table.

The afternoon went by without major incident.

Many townspeople left.

It’s inevitable, they’ll continue leaving.


Today, with the necessary precautions, the barricade, orderliness, we went to bed with greater calm.

The drizzle didn’t stop all day.

Was increasing at times.

I think about those boys, the rebels in arms.

Imagine them underneath the drizzle during these days of suffering.

Think about the people from the ranches sleeping out in the bush, also underneath the drizzle and wind, fleeing from the rebels.

Imagine them asking the children not to make noise because the guerrillas might discover them, because they might kill them.

And also think about the young soldiers standing guard at the roadblocks.

With their eyes peeled for every silhouette, for every shadow.

With their ears peeled for each nocturnal noise, for each animal cry, for each screech owl, for each branch that breaks.

Behind any given tree death may lie in wait.


[i] In the prehispanic world, as well as in ancient Spain, parts of Africa, and a few other parts of the world, the weather that occurred during the days of January was believed to predict the weather for the whole year. In modern Mexico, for those who have no grandparents closely tied to the land and agriculture, the term has lost its significance and now means only the rains that come in January. . . .  The [Spanish language] has a bit of interesting weather folklore. They believe that the weather on the first twelve days of January foretells the weather for the twelve months of the coming year. . . .  The period is called the Cabañuelas, from the Spanish word cabaña or small cabin. The twelve cabanas house the weather.( http://www.alabamawx.com/?p=13998)

[ii] La Tremenda Corte (The Awesome Courthouse) was a radio comedy show produced in Havana, Cuba. The scripts were written by Cástor Vispo, a Spaniard who became Cuban citizen. The show was aired nonstop from 1942 to 1961. Later, the format of the show was taken for a TV sitcom in Monterrey, Mexico, however, only three and a half seasons were produced from 1966 to 1969.



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